I have long held the view that teenagers are likely to make the best progress when parents, teachers and student work co-operatively towards an agreed goal. This ought not to be difficult since all the parties usually agree that their over-riding goal is that of enabling the student to be successful. Despite that common ground, however, there seem frequently to be obstacles that get in the way of meaningful cooperation. Let’s look at a few of the more common obstacles from the perspective of parents.
Dangers to Avoid
1. The Blame Game.
I recall the opening gambit of a parent at a parent-teacher conference, “X used to be good at maths until she came into your class”. The implication was clear, whatever the difficulties the student was facing, in the eyes of this parent, the teacher was to blame. On other occasions, I have heard teachers pronounce on the extent to which parents should look to the deficiencies in their parenting skills to see the reasons for their teenagers’ lack of progress.
The above are examples of what I call The Blame Game, within which parents and teachers blame each other for a lack of student progress. The Blame Game takes various forms and occurs on a daily basis in some school communities. Tragically, the only guaranteed outcome is the one thing everyone says they do not want – the student loses out.
Even though some teenagers might try to deny it, the most significant adults in the life of a teenager are likely to be their parents and their teachers. These are the adults under whose jurisdiction they spend most of their time. So, these are the adults, too, who have the greatest opportunity to exercise an influence on them as they journey through the formative teenage years. Also, whilst teenagers sometimes have the reputation of being in constant rebellion against parents and teachers, for many this is not the case and both parents and teachers figure prominently among those whose approval they seek.
That being said, however, there comes a time for many teenagers when they try to avoid responsibility or to shift the blame for a lack of progress in a particular area onto someone else. In such circumstances, The Blame Game gives the opportunity for the teenager to play parents and teachers off against each other. By feeding information selectively, the teenager can ensure that each party hears things that reinforce their presumption that the other party is to blame. Attention is thereby diverted away from the issues the teenager may need to address. Whilst the teenager may feel that as a result they have “won” in such a situation, in reality they have “lost”. Until parent and teacher can find a way to break out of The Blame Game, the teenager is less likely to come under pressure to address whatever is impeding progress, and so less likely to make progress as a result.
2. Seeing your teenager as a mini-you.
Of course parents want the best for their children, but the best is not necessarily the making of the child in the exact image of the parent. Parents who achieve highly in a particular field do not automatically produce children who will excel, or even be interested, in the same field. It will most likely be during the years of adolescence that the teenager will become aware if this is the case. What can result is a high level of sadness for all involved if parents fight the realisation that their teenager wishes to move in a different direction than the one they (the parents) had hoped.
3. Unrealistic expectations.
I see no problem with parents wanting to challenge and push their teenager to achieve the best they can. I have been saddened over the years, however, by the number of parents whose desire for success on the part of their teenager seemed to take no account of the teenager’s abilities, character, disposition, personal strengths or desires. Children and teenagers are individuals. Not all of them are gifted academically, but they all have strengths. Wise parents encourage their teenagers to develop their strengths and to find a path in life that will bring them fulfilment and happiness. Insisting on pursuing unrealistic expectations through your children inhibits their choices, development and future prospects. So avoid harbouring expectations that are completely unrealistic.
4. Helicopter parenting.
This term refers to the seemingly irresistible urge on the part of some parents to intervene on behalf of their children whatever the situation. Helicopter parents operate from the assumption that their child is always right and can do no wrong; that they (the parents) need to protect their child from every imagined danger (however slight) and from any threat to their reputation. It may be true that this approach to parenting is seen more in the parents of younger children than in the parents of teenagers.
However, parents who have adopted this approach to parenting during the earlier years often have a hard time changing as the child grows older, into the teenager years and even beyond. Helicopter parenting is not good parenting. It does not encourage teenagers to take responsibility for their own lives. It renders parents deaf to the critique of teachers concerning issues that may affect the progress of their teenagers.
Having looked at a few dangers to avoid, let’s now turn to some positive strategies that we might adopt.
1. Respect teachers as professionals.
The vast majority of teachers, in my experience, are committed to their profession and care about the teenagers they teach. At Senior School level, most teachers are experts in their subject area as well as being qualified in the field of education. So, imagine how it feels as a teacher to be told by parents with no relevant expertise that you are not doing your job properly. Despite having a difficult job to do, most of the teachers I know care genuinely for the teenagers entrusted to them and seek the best for them. That echoes what the vast majority of parents want for their teenage children and their education is more likely to be fruitful when parents and teachers respect each other and work together.
2. Recognise that both society and education have changed since you were a teenager.
The rate of change in society has increased exponentially with the arrival of the digital age. In order to prepare teenagers for adult life in society, education has also had to change its approaches and emphases. Parents should beware of making unfavourable comparisons with the education they received when they were at school because, in terms of education, they are years out of date. To put it bluntly, the fact that a parent once attended school does not make them an expert in education.
3. Do all you can to cooperate with teachers.
Sometimes, the teenager at home and the same teenager at school would seem to any impartial observer to be two different people. If this is the case with your teenager, then as parents you need to communicate with teachers about your observations, and request that they let you know their observations too. Many of us modify our behaviour to some degree depending on our surroundings. However, sometimes, the difference is so marked that it is a sign of other issues that need to be addressed for the well-being of the teenager. On a few occasions over the years, I remember discovering that parents had deliberately hidden the needs of their teenager during the admissions process, presumably fearing that if the needs came to light their teenager’s application might be compromised.
Whether during an admissions process, or in other circumstances, parents and teachers need to be able to voice their hopes, concerns, fears, criticisms and expectations to each other so that there can be genuine cooperation for the sake of the student. Some parents, perhaps due to the intensity of their desire to see their teenagers succeed, sometimes can come across as difficult, but the vast majority are not difficult – they just want the best for their teenager. Ultimately, parents and teachers are on the same side and share the same goal of helping students find success. Generally, it remains true that teenagers are more likely to be helped towards finding success when teachers and parents work together with the student to help bring it about.
4. Hold your teenager accountable for their own progress.
Ultimately, the person who must take responsibility for your teenager’s progress, or lack of it, is none other than your teenager. Especially in situations where teenagers might seek to avoid taking responsibility, it is important that parents and teachers communicate openly with each other and that both remain clear on where ultimate responsibility belongs.
5. Seek parent education.
When children are young, there are often many resources available to support and encourage parents. By the time those same children have reached their teenage years, however, quality information and support are frequently more conspicuous by their absence. By that stage, the assumption seems to be that parents know what they are doing. In reality, that can be far from the truth. Parent workshops on understanding and parenting teenagers could help parents gain insight, understanding and empathy for their teenagers. Schools are a natural focal point for parents and I would encourage schools to take the area of parent education more seriously. I would encourage parents to request such resources and support through their school and to work with the school to develop programmes that could do much to improve the quality of their parenting.
About the author
Dr Steve Sims is author of the blog Regarding Teenagers and Director of the Basel Learning Hub in Switzerland.